Informal Learning

It’s been just over 18 months since I arrived in Tanzania (minus my quarterly visits home and the 4 months that I was trapped in the UK because there were no flights operating) and something that you quickly realise are the lack of opportunities to develop skills outside of the classroom, or at least, outside of a rigid curriculum of theoretical learning.

It is of course, easy for me to comment since most informal skills are acquired through practice, and few teachers at a government school have the time or resources to actually engage with their students in any meaningful way. A typical class involves dictating the contents of the curriculum, writing up notes on the blackboard and setting a few exercises. Discussions of practical activities are out of question, with an average class comprising anything up to 70 children.

The effect of this is that children grow up without the ability to actualise their learning. It becomes an exercise of memorizing definitions, concepts and a few examples, but it is never “real”. More longterm, you create a generation that is unable to think out of the box, respond creatively to crises and challenge societal norms. When it comes to the world of work, businesses (and even NGOs like Kijana Kwanza) find it difficult to recruit the required talent to succeed. Recruitment is, at the best of times, a nightmare – and even worse when you are forced to shortlist some very unimpressive candidates and then sit through a bunch of interviews, where you try and seek out the least boring person to sit in your office.

When I first visited a Tanzanian school, I immediately realised that whilst we cannot change the government curriculum we must supplement our children’s learning with something more that challenges and encourages creativity. The kind of opaque language I use to define this approach to education is “informal learning”, “life skills training” or “soft skills development”. No one quite understands what that means in Tanzania and on our house timetable these sessions are designated as “Extra-curricular Activities”.

This is of course quite a problematic term since “extra-curricular” simply implies “outside of the curriculum” or “beyond the curriculum”. In Tanzania, this usually means sport or debates. But of course, it is – or should be – much more than that.

My biggest challenge in developing a programme of informal learning (I prefer this terminology of all the options above) is that there are few people – if any – who understand what I mean. And if they get it (though frankly I think they only say they get it), they don’t value it. And if they value it (and we are talking about a huge minority within a bigger minority), they just don’t know how to do it.

So I’ve had to resort to developing my own material and asking for help in delivering it. I wouldn’t be surprised if the staff dismiss what I am trying to do as “playing games” or “drawing” but I am desperate to demonstrate that it is possible and it holds intrinsic value to a child’s development.

So far I’ve delivered 5 sessions – and it’s been fascinating to witness new identities and personalities emerging amongst children that I thought I new quite well. The sessions have been pretty conservative so far – map-reading skills, making bridges out of spaghetti, an exercise in communication skills, a creative session where the children had the opportunity to design the living room in our new shelter and a self-awareness session where young people learned to identify their strengths and weaknesses. The method of learning is always through practical activities, exercises and games. With prizes for the winner just to add a competitive edge.

It’s too early to say whether this will be a success, but one thing is for sure, they actually enjoy the sessions. Whilst they would drag their feet to “extra-curricular activities before, they are now waiting to see what activity is planned for the next weekend.

On the downside, the children find the exercises really difficult (I’ve delivered the same sessions to children and young people of a similar age back in the UK) – and they are so terrified of getting it wrong, they resort to copying and cheating. It’s also pretty rare for any of the children to come up with something even slightly original. Every bridge they made looked the same, every design of the living room at our new shelter was practically the same… it is clearly hard to break an ingrained approach, but this will be my personal challenge for the year ahead.